You probably conduct online research on a regular basis, turning to Google or another popular search tool to look up something you’ve just read or heard about. This is informal, but still requires you to sort through a long list of results to figure out what resources best answer your question. Online academic research is performed using similar tools, but in a much more intentional and critical way.
No matter what your research question is or where your interests lie, online research can lead to information overload. It’s easy to find resources that include your keywords, but which ones are the most relevant and reliable? Learning how to separate the good from the bad is a critical skill and one that your instructors expect you to have. The quality of your search and the sources you choose to incorporate into your projects is paramount.
Google and Wikipedia are great starting points, but not sufficient for academic purposes. This guide shares ways in which you can prepare for your next research project, including identifying appropriate and credible resources, using special-topic search engines and citing the sources you find.
Preparing for Research
Conducting useful research takes time. Prepare for the work ahead by selecting which browser you will use to navigate the Internet, and by organizing your work with a reference management tool. These steps will help you manage your time and effort as you identify relevant resources and begin to incorporate them into your papers and projects.
Internet browsers allow you to access online resources, such as webpages, databases and videos. This specialized software often requires a free download, and once installed, provide a variety of standard features, including bookmarking, navigation buttons, tabbed views, search capabilities and add-ons or extensions for additional features. Some of the most commonly used browsers are Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer.
Extensions and add-ons expand on the functionality of Internet browsers. Each system has different capabilities. For example, Chrome’s research and writing extensions include Grammarly (grammar and spelling assistance) and Citelighter (citation formatting), and Firefox’s Zotero and Cite This! add-ons help students organize their writing and references.
Making your online research as efficient as possible involves thoughtful organization. Taking time to figure out how you will track your sources and set up a system to collect all of the materials you find will streamline the process, and help you outline a cohesive narrative when you are ready to write.
Citation or reference management tools allow you to collect the sources from which you plan to cite in your papers or projects. You can also export these sources as bibliographies formatted in the style required for your courses (e.g., Chicago, MLA, APA). Most of these tools help with organizing your references in the form of a personal collection. Typical features include adding notes to individual documents, syncing your work across devices, attaching supplemental files, connecting to existing databases, searching your collection and sharing your resources with others (i.e., as part of a group research project).
Many of these organization tools are free, but some may require subscription rates. However, before paying for any tool, check with your reference librarians to find out if you have student access through your school’s accounts. The following citation and reference managers are just a few of those available, and are widely used in higher education:
- EndNote: Download Endnote software for use on your computer or sign up for the Web-based version. EndNote Basic is a free option designed for those new to research and writing.
- Mendeley: Used by students, faculty members and research professionals, this tool also serves as an academic social network and is compatible with Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS and Android systems.
- Zotero: Flexible options allow you to download this software for Mac, Windows and Linux, or as a browser extension (Firefox) or plug in (Chrome, Safari).
Evaluate Sources for Credibility
With approximately 1 billion websites in existence, the amount of information available continues to expand. But not all of the resources you’ll find are accurate or reliable. It’s critical to evaluate your search results for credibility before deciding to use the materials in your academic work, no matter what topic you are researching. Use the following questions to guide your review of each source you want to include:
- What is the purpose of the resource or website? Some sites are designed around educational goals while others are primarily focused on selling something or providing another kind of experience (e.g., entertainment, news).
- Who is the target audience for the information presented? The look of the site and the language used can be clues to the intended readers. Are other resources cited? Is the material based on research or opinion?
- Who is the author or creator? Look for details about the writer’s background and expertise with the topic. Search for information about his or her credentials, as well as other credible publications in the field.
- Who sponsors the website? Is the website maintained by a school (.edu), government agency (.gov), business (.com) or nonprofit organization (.org)? The website’s extension is a starting point, but you should also explore the “About Us” pages and contact information to find out more about the source and its perspective on the topic.
- How recent was the information published or updated? Many websites are updated infrequently or even abandoned, but they can still appear in your search results. Take some time to determine if the materials presented are not only relevant to your research, but also current.
Many class assignments require you to use only “academic” or “scholarly” references in research. These kinds of materials are different from other kinds of publications, such as magazines, news sites and personal blogs. Look for the following components, which are typical of scholarly resources available online:
- Peer-review: The most prestigious academic journals provide peer-reviewed articles, indicating that the author’s manuscript was read by and revised with the feedback of other experts in the field before it was published.
- Author Information: Details about the author will be provided, including name, organization, and often contact information and a brief bio.
- Bibliography and Citations: Scholarly articles include citations or footnotes of other academic sources, which are also provided in a list of references.
- Length and Title: Many academic journals publish lengthy articles (i.e., five printed pages or more) that have complex titles.
- Images and Tables: Scholarly articles published online typically include more figures and tables than images or photographs, and do not include advertisements.
With so many Web-based resources available, you need to find effective ways to locate high-quality scholarly resources for your research assignments. Internet search engines provide easy access to a wide variety of information, but there are other strategies than can help you narrow your search more quickly.
Search engines like Google are a good place to start learning about your topic in a more general way. Additional search tools are more tailored to academic research and often focus on providing you with journals and articles publishing in a specific discipline, subject or field.
You’ve probably already experienced finding relevant websites with keyword searches, but there are additional techniques, called operators, that make your search results even more relevant. Try some of the operators listed below.
These Boolean search operators work with a wide range of search engines and searchable databases:
- AND: Creates a list of results in which each item includes all of the terms you are interested in researching. For example, if you wanted to know more about Spanish colonial history that involves the explorer Ponce de Leon, your search might be for: “Spain” AND “North America” AND “Colony” AND “Ponce de Leon.”
- OR: Using “OR” in your search produces results in which each item includes at least one, but not necessarily all, of your key terms. This is a broader search than the “AND” search described above, and would look like this: Spain OR North America OR Colony OR Ponce de Leon.
- NOT: This operator narrows your search by instructing the database to exclude specific terms. If you wanted to modify the search described above to find explorers other than Ponce de Leon, your search might be something like: Spanish explorers NOT Ponce de Leon.
You can combine the AND, OR, and NOT operators to create more specific search results. The order of the operators makes a difference. The following examples illustrate some of the possibilities:
- (Spain OR France) AND (Exploration OR Colonization)
- Spain AND North America AND (Explorers NOT Ponce de Leon)
Google has its own set of operators, which can be used in addition to Boolean search methods. The techniques listed below are just a few of the ways you can finetune your online academic research using this search engine:
- site: search for keywords or terms within a specific site or type of website, such as:
- airline safety site:cnn.com
- climate change site:.gov
- school policy research site:.edu
- donations site:redcross.org
- related: find resources that are similar to a source you are already aware of, such as:
- info: locate information about a specific website, including pages that are similar, link to it and link from it, such as:
Academic Search Engines
The sites listed below allow you to explore scholarly research, as well as learn more about academic social networks, industry conferences and individual researchers. Many focus on a specific subject area or discipline. These represent a small sample of academic search engine options; consult with your school’s research librarian for additional recommendations.
- AMiner: Search for scientific researchers, concepts, conferences, citations and publications through this online academic community.
- CiteSeerX: Sponsored by The Pennsylvania State University, this site serves as a digital library of research in computer and information science.
- CogPrints: This database specializes in cognitive science and related fields, such as neuroscience, biology and psychology.
- ERIC: Provided by the U.S. Department of Education, ERIC provides access to journal and non-journal publications related to education.
- Google Scholar: Powered by the popular search engine, Google Scholar filters search results to include only academic resources; authors and researchers can also create online profiles within this system.
- National Bureau of Economic Research: Search this nonprofit research center’s site to access journals, working papers and other publications related to statistics, economic behavior and public policy.
- National Criminal Justice Reference Service: This site is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice and provides access to journal and non-journal publications covering topics related to crime, victim assistance and public safety.
- PhilPapers: Organized by the nonprofit Philosophy Documentation Center, this site indexes resources for research in philosophy, including journals, books, personal academic web pages and other publications.
- PubMed: Use this site from the National Institutes of Health’s U.S. National Library of Medicine to search for research in biomedicine and the life sciences.
- Science.gov: This site serves as a gateway to scientific research conducted by the Federal government, and provides access to more than 60 databases and 15 agencies.
- SciTech: Search for full-text articles, multimedia resources and data sets provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, and covering topics ranging from biology and engineering to national defense and power generation.
- Social Science Research Network: This collaborative site includes citations for more than 500,000 articles covering research in a wide range of social science categories (e.g., anthropology, humanities, management, political science).
- WorldWideScience: Maintained by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information, this site provides a searchable catalog of international scientific research databases.
Open Access Journal Databases
Traditionally, academic journals are closed publications available only to those who pay for a subscription. University libraries subscribe to many of these journals and subscription-based databases, such as JSTOR, which you can access online while you are a student. Today there are also more open access journals than ever before, providing you with full-text articles online without a fee. As you conduct research for your courses, add the following open access resources to your search:
- AGRIS: This database catalogs resources from a collaborative international network of the United Nations, providing access to bibliographies of agricultural science and technology research.
- arXiv: Funded by Cornell University, this open archive includes research in the fields of physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance and statistics.
- BASE: Maintained by the Bielefeld University (Germany) Library, this search engine includes open access journals in a wide range of fields.
- Directory of Open Access Journals: The nonprofit DOAJ organization maintains a database of more than 10,000 open access academic journals publishing research in the hard sciences, technology, medicine, social sciences and humanities.
- Elsevier: Science, health and technology publisher Elsevier provides free access to some of its scholarly journals and articles through ScienceDirect.
- JournalSeek: The JournalSeek database includes resources from more than 6,000 publishers, and includes academic research in topics ranging from the arts and literature to sports and recreation.
- OAlster: Part of the OCLC, a global library cooperative, this database catalogs millions of digital resources from open directories.
- Open Science Directory: Developed through a partnership that includes EBSCO, this directory allows users to search for open access journals from multiple databases with a focus on science and special programs for developing countries.
- PubChem: The Open Chemistry Database includes publications featuring emergent research and patents, and is provided by the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s National Center for Biotechnology Information.
- Wiley Open Access: Academic publisher John Wiley & Sons shares open access, peer reviewed journals covering a wide range of medical and science topics through this online database.
Databases and search engines aren’t the only source of online academic research materials. You should also plan to contact experts in your field of interest through social media networks. In addition, reference librarians at your school’s library and local public library are skilled in finding information, so let them help you discover additional resources that do not appear in journal directories.
Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook provide access to broad communities of academic experts. Follow the accounts of leaders in your area of study to learn more about their publications, research and ongoing projects. Social networking platforms like these also lend themselves to informal conversations. Users expect direct contact from followers, so you may find authors responding to you directly. LinkedIn and Facebook Groups also provide ways for you to ask relevant questions in organized forums.
Not sure what libraries are in your local area? WorldCat is a network of libraries that allows you to not only find library locations in your community, but also search their collections online. Books, CDs, DVDs and articles from more than 10,000 libraries are included. Many university and public libraries also offer one-on-one assistance online through Ask a Librarian services. Look for opportunities to communicate through live chat forums, or to submit a question through an online form and receive an email response. WorldCat also provides links to these options in its library search tool.
Citing Your Sources
Academic research comes with many expectations, including citing your sources. When you refer to anything created by someone other than yourself, you must give credit to that person. Not giving proper credit is considered plagiarism. In writing, citations convey to the reader where you found your information, whether you are providing a direct quote, paraphrasing a specific passage, or describing an idea presented by another writer. There are formal ways in which to cite your references in papers and projects, and tools to help you do this correctly.
Citation Style Manuals
Citation manuals and style guides provide standards for the way citations should be included in writing, as well as how bibliography or reference lists should be presented at the end of a document. There are many style guides available, but three in particular are predominantly used in higher education. Check with your instructors or school’s Writing Center to find out which one is required in your courses.
- MLA: The Modern Language Association (MLA) Handbook and MLA Style Manual is often used in humanities and literature programs.
- Chicago: The Chicago Manual of Style is published by the University of Chicago Press and is often used in humanities and social science programs.
- APA: The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is typically used in education, psychology and science programs.
In addition to the reference management tools listed previously in this guide (e.g., EndNote, Zotero), online citation generators help you create the specific formats required for citing different kinds of sources (e.g., books, journal articles, websites) using specific style guides (e.g., APA, Chicago, MLA). Before using a generator, check the edition of the style guide you want to use (i.e., 6th edition of APA) and make sure the tool is using the same edition.
Most citation generators allow you to search for a source by keyword, title or other criteria, then complete a form to generate a proper citation in your choice of formats. You can export or download your citations for use in your document, and some tools are integrated with MS Word. Try one of these popular tools:
- Research and Citation Resources from Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL)
- Effective Paraphrasing Strategies from the Walden University Writing Center
- Academic Search Engines from Virginia Tech University Libraries
- Choosing a Web Browser from GCF LearnFree.org
- Plagiarism Game from Lycoming College